Language Is Magic

I’ve been at university for a bit over a week now, and started my Linguistics with German degree course two days ago. At the end of the seminar I had today, our group was asked: “why do you all want to study linguistics? What about it makes it interesting to you?”

When I tell people I’m studying linguistics, many of these people ask me: “what languages?” They assume that they know what I am talking about, but they forget, or maybe don’t realise, that there is more to a language than knowing how to use it to communicate. Linguistics is the scientific study of language as a concept, from phonetics (speech sounds and how we make them) to sociolinguistics (how social factors such as class, sex, age and ethnicity affect the way language is used) to syntax (the structure of sentences). But things like that often don’t cross people’s minds. After all, they have been speaking their language for years; what more is there to know?

That’s why I find linguistics interesting. Those of us who, for example, can’t programme computers know very well that we can’t programme computers. But not many people know just how much they don’t know about the sentences they build and the sounds they form into words every day. It’s like a hidden science, it’s like a secret society. You don’t know it’s there until you really stop and think about how you don’t need to be psychic to place images in other people’s heads, you can just put one word after another in a specific way and providing that they speak the same language as you, they can rebuild the image in their heads just as you described it to them.

And the person doing the describing doesn’t even have to be anywhere near you for them to communicate that image. You can make little inks marks on paper, and these little ink marks have the power to take strangers on journeys around the world, to inspire them, to entertain them or to break their hearts. You don’t need magic to cast a spell on people; you just need words.

If you think about it, all language is is a load of sounds, and all writing is is some funny squiggles, and yet we can understand them. And we take it completely for granted; we don’t know how we do it, and we don’t even think about how we do it, we just do it. Doesn’t that say something amazing about the human brain? Because nobody told you how to put a sentence together, but you still know how to do it. Well, you say, it’s just common sense. So does that mean that you were born knowing that the adjective goes before the noun (eg, “the sneaky fox”)? Does that mean you were born knowing that it makes sense to say “the fox will hunt the rabbit” but not “the fox will the rabbit hunt”? If we were all born knowing these things, then why does the adjective come after the noun in French, and why would “the fox will the rabbit hunt” be a perfectly grammatical sentence in German?

Language is a mystery but that doesn’t stop us using it every day. Language is powerful and strange, but language works in so many ways we don’t understand, and personally I don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to find out all it’s secrets.

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